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Cultural Theory and Popular Culture

Cultural Theory and Popular Culture

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Edward Said (1985), in one of the founding texts of post-colonial theory, shows how
a Western discourse on the Orient – ‘Orientalism’ – has constructed a ‘knowledge’ of
the East and a body of ‘power–knowledge’ relations articulated in the interests of the
‘power’ of the West. According to Said, ‘The Orient was a European invention’ (1).
‘Orientalism’ is the term he uses to describe the relationship between Europe and the
Orient, in particular, the way ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as
its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’ (1–2). He ‘also tries to show that
European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient
as a sort of surrogate and even underground self’ (3).



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Chapter 8‘Race’, racism and representation

Orientalism can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing
with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorising views
of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as
a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient

In other words, Orientalism, a ‘system of ideological fiction’ (321), is a matter of
power. It is one of the mechanisms by which the West maintained its hegemony over
the Orient. This is in part achieved by an insistence on an absolute difference between
the West and the Orient, in which ‘the West...is rational, developed, humane, super-
ior, and the Orient...is aberrant, undeveloped, inferior’ (300).
How does all this, in more general terms, relate to the study of popular culture? It
is not too difficult to see how imperial fictions might bebetter understood using the
approach developed by Said. There are basically two imperial plot structures. First, stor-
ies that tell of white colonizers succumbing to the primeval power of the jungle and,
as the racist myth puts it, ‘going native’. Kurtz of both Heart of DarknessandApocalypse
Now is such a figure. Then there are stories of whites, who because of the supposed
power of their racial heredity impose themselves on the jungle and its inhabitants.
‘Tarzan’ (novels, films and myth) is the classic representation of this imperial fiction.
From the perspective of Orientalism both narratives tell us a great deal more about the
desires and anxieties of the culture of imperialism than they can ever tell us about the
people and places of colonial conquest. What the approach does is to shift the focus of
attention away from what and where the narratives are about to the ‘function’ that they
may serve to the producers and consumers of such fictions. It prevents us from slipping
into a form of naive realism: that is, away from a focus on what the stories tell us about
Africa or the Africans, to what such representations tell us about Europeans and
Americans. In effect, it shifts our concern from ‘how’ the story is told to ‘why’, and from
those whom the story is about to those who tell and consume the story.
Hollywood’s Vietnam, the way it tells the story of America’s war in Vietnam, is in
many ways a classic example of a particular form of Orientalism. Rather than the sil-
ence of defeat, there has been a veritable ‘incitement’ to talk about Vietnam. America’s
most unpopular war has become its most popular when measured in discursive and
commercial terms. Although America no longer has ‘authority over’ Vietnam, it con-
tinues to hold authority over Western accounts of America’s war in Vietnam. Holly-
wood as a ‘corporate institution’ deals with Vietnam ‘by making statements about it,
authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it’. Hollywood has ‘invented’ Vietnam
as a ‘contrasting image’ and a ‘surrogate and...underground self’ of America. In this
way Hollywood – together with other discursive practices, such as songs, novels, TV
serials, etc. – has succeeded in producing a very powerful discourse on Vietnam: telling
America and the world that what happened there, happened because Vietnam is like
that. These different discourses are not just about Vietnam; they may increasingly
constitute for many Americans the experience of Vietnam. They may become the war


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From the perspective of Orientalism it does not really matter whether Hollywood’s
representations are ‘true’ or ‘false’ (historically accurate or not); what matters is the
‘regime of truth’ (Michel Foucault; discussed in Chapter 6) they put into circulation.
From this perspective, Hollywood’s power is not a negative force, something that
denies, represses, negates. On the contrary, it is productive. Foucault’s general point
about power is also true with regard to Hollywood’s power:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms:
it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact,
power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of
truth (1979: 194).

Moreover, as he also points out, ‘Each society has its own regime of truth, its “general
politics” of truth – that is, the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true’
(2002a: 131). On the basis of this, I want now to briefly describe three narrative
paradigms, models for understanding, or ‘regimes of truth’, which featured strongly in
Hollywood’s Vietnam in the 1980s.39
The first narrative paradigm is ‘the war as betrayal’. This is first of all a discourse
about bad leaders. In Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action I, Missing in Action II: The
Beginning, Braddock: Missing in Action IIIand Rambo: First Blood Part II, for example,
politicians are blamed for America’s defeat in Vietnam. When John Rambo (Sylvester
Stallone) is asked to return to Vietnam in search of American soldiers missing in action,
he asks, with great bitterness: ‘Do we get to win this time?’ In other words, will the
politicians let them win? Second, it is a discourse about weak military leadership in the
field. In Platoonand Casualties of War, for example, defeat, it is suggested, is the result
of an incompetent military command. Third, it is also a discourse about civilian
betrayal. Both Cutter’s Wayand First Bloodsuggest that the war effort was betrayed back
home in America. Again John Rambo’s comments are symptomatic. When he is told
by Colonel Trautman, ‘It’s over Johnny’, he responds,

Nothing is over. You don’t just turn it off. It wasn’t my war. You asked me, and I
did what I had to do to win, but somebody wouldn’t let us win. And I come back
to the world and see these maggots protesting at the airport, calling me baby-killer.
Who are they to protest me? I was there, they weren’t!

Interestingly, all the films in this category are structured around loss. In Uncommon
Valor, Missing in Action I, II, and III, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and POW: The Escape, it
is lost prisoners; in Cutter’s Way, First Blood, and Born on the Fourth of July, it is lost
pride; in Platoonand Casualties of Warit is lost innocence. It seems clear that the dif-
ferent versions of what is lost are symptomatic of a displacement of a greater loss: the
displacement of that which can barely be named, America’s defeat in Vietnam. The use
of American POWs is undoubtedly the most ideologically charged of these displace-
ment strategies. It seems to offer the possibility of three powerful political effects. First,



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Chapter 8‘Race’, racism and representation

to accept the myth that there are Americans still being held in Vietnam is to begin to
retrospectively justify the original intervention. If the Vietnamese are so barbaric as to
still hold prisoners decades after the conclusion of the conflict, then there is no need
to feel guilty about the war, as they surely deserved the full force of American military
intervention. Second, Susan Jeffords identifies a process she calls the ‘femininization
of loss’ (1989: 145). That is, those blamed for America’s defeat, whether they are
unpatriotic protesters, an uncaring government, a weak and incompetent military
command, or corrupt politicians, are always represented as stereotypically feminine:
‘the stereotyped characteristics associated with the feminine in dominant U.S. culture
– weakness, indecisiveness, dependence, emotion, nonviolence, negotiation, unpre-
dictability, deception’ (145). Jeffords’ argument is illustrated perfectly in the MIA cycle
of films in which the ‘feminine’ negotiating stance of the politicians is played out
against the ‘masculine’, no-nonsense approach of the returning veterans. The implica-
tion being that ‘masculine’ strength and single-mindedness would have won the war,
whilst ‘feminine’ weakness and duplicity lost it. Third, perhaps most important of all
is how these films turned what was thought to be lost into something which was only
missing. Defeat is displaced by the ‘victory’ of finding and recovering American POWs.
Puzzled by the unexpected success of Uncommon Valorin 1983, the New York Timessent
a journalist to interview the film’s ‘audience’. One moviegoer was quite clear why the
film was such a box-office success: ‘We get to win the Vietnam War’ (quoted in H. Bruce
Franklin 1993: 141).

The second narrative paradigm is ‘the inverted firepower syndrome’. This is a narra-
tive device in which the United States’ massive techno-military advantage is inverted.
Instead of scenes of the massive destructive power of American military force, we are
shown countless narratives of individual Americans fighting the numberless (and often
invisible) forces of the North Vietnamese Army and/or the sinister and shadowy men
and women of the National Liberation Front (‘Viet Cong’). Missing In Action I, II, and
III, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Platoon, all contain scenes of lone Americans strug-
gling against overwhelming odds. John Rambo, armed only with a bow and arrow, is
perhaps the most notorious example. Platoon, however, takes this narrative strategy on
to another plane altogether. In a key scene, ‘good’ Sergeant Elias is pursued by a count-
less number of North Vietnamese soldiers. He is shot continually until he falls to his
knees, spreading his arms out in a Christ-like gesture of agony and betrayal. The cam-
era pans slowly to emphasize the pathos of his death throes. In Britain the film was
promoted with a poster showing Elias in the full pain of his ‘crucifixion’. Above the
image is written the legend: ‘The First Casualty of War is Innocence’. Loss of innocence
is presented as both a realization of the realities of modern warfare and as a result of
America playing fair against a brutal and ruthless enemy. The ideological implication
is clear: if America lost by playing the good guy, it is ‘obvious’ that it will be necessary
in all future conflicts to play the tough guy in order to win.
The third narrative paradigm is ‘the Americanization of the war’. What I want to
indicate by this term is the way in which the meaning of the Vietnam War has become
in Hollywood’s Vietnam (and elsewhere in US cultural production) an absolutely
American phenomenon. This is an example of what we might call ‘imperial narcissism’,


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in which the United States is centred and Vietnam and the Vietnamese exist only to
provide a context for an American tragedy, whose ultimate brutality is the loss of
American innocence. And like any good tragedy, it was doomed from the beginning to
follow the dictates of fate. It was something that just happened. Hollywood’s Vietnam
exhibits what Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud call a ‘mystique of unintelligibility’
(1990: 13). Perhaps the most compelling example of the mystique of unintelligibility
is the opening sequence in the American video version of Platoon. It begins with a few
words of endorsement from the then chairman of the Chrysler Corporation. We see
him moving through a clearing in a wood towards a jeep. He stops at the jeep, and rest-
ing against it, addresses the camera,

This jeep is a museum piece, a relic of war. Normandy, Anzio, Guadalcanal, Korea,
Vietnam. I hope we will never have to build another jeep for war. This film Platoon
is a memorial not to war but to all the men and women who fought in a time and
in a place nobody really understood, who knew only one thing: they were called and
they went. It was the same from the first musket fired at Concord to the rice pad-
dies of the Mekong Delta: they were called and they went. That in the truest sense
is the spirit of America. The more we understand it, the more we honor those who
kept it alive [my italics] (quoted in Harry W. Haines 1990: 81).

This is a discourse in which there is nothing to explain but American survival.
Getting ‘Back to the World’ is everything it is about. It is an American tragedy and
America and Americans are its onlyvictims. The myth is expressed with numbing pre-
cision in Chris Taylor’s (Charlie Sheen) narration at the end of Platoon. Taylor looks
back from the deck of a rising helicopter on the dead and dying of the battlefield
below. Samuel Barber’s mournful and very beautiful Adagio for Stringsseems to dictate
the cadence and rhythm of his voice as he speaks these words of psycho-babble, about
a war in which more than two million Vietnamese were killed, ‘I think now looking
back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us’. Time
Magazine’s (26 January 1987) review of the film echoes and elaborates this theme:

Welcome back to the war that, just 20 years ago, turned America schizophrenic.
Suddenly we were a nation split between left and right, black and white, hip and
square, mothers and fathers, parents and children. For a nation whose war history
had read like a John Wayne war movie – where good guys finished first by being
tough and playing fair – the polarisation was soul-souring. Americans were fight-
ing themselves, and both sides lost.

Platoon’s function in this scenario is to heal the schizophrenia of the American body
politic. The film’s rewriting of the war not only excludes the Vietnamese, it also rewrites
the anti-war movement. Pro-war and anti-war politics are re-enacted as different posi-
tions in a debate on how best to fight and win the war. One group (led by the ‘good’
Sergeant Elias and who listens to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ and smokes mari-
juana) wants to fight the war with honour and dignity, whilst the other (led by the



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Chapter 8‘Race’, racism and representation

‘bad’ Sergeant Barnes and who listens to Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and
drinks beer) wants to fight the war in any way which will win it. We are asked to
believe that this was the essential conflict which tore America apart – the anti-war
movement, dissolved into a conflict on how best to fight and win the war. As Michael
Klein contends ‘the war is decontextualized, mystified as a tragic mistake, an existential
adventure, or a rite of passage through which the White American Hero discovers his
identity’ (1990: 10).

Although I have outlined three of the dominant narrative paradigms in Hollywood’s
Vietnam, I do not want to suggest that these were or are unproblematically consumed by
its American audiences (or any other audience). My claim is only that Hollywood pro-
duced a particular regime of truth. But film (like any other cultural text or practice) has
to be madeto mean (see Chapter 10). To really discover the extent to which Hollywood’s
Vietnam has made its ‘truth’ tell requires a consideration of consumption. This will
take us beyond a focus on the meaningof a text, to a focus on the meanings that can
be made in the encounter between the discourses of the text and the discourses of
the ‘consumer’, as it is never a matter of verifying (with an ‘audience’) the real meaning
of, say, Platoon. The focus on consumption (understood as ‘production in use’) is to
explorethe political effectivity (or otherwise) of, say, Platoon. If a cultural text is to
become effective (politically or otherwise) it must be made to connect with people’s
lives – become part of their ‘lived culture’. Formal analysis of Hollywood’s Vietnam may
point tohow the industry has articulated the war as an American tragedy of bravery and
betrayal,but this does not tell us that it has been consumed as a war of bravery and

In the absence of ethnographic work on the audience for Hollywood’s Vietnam,
I want to point to two pieces of evidence that may provide us with clues to the circu-
lation and effectivity of Hollywood’s articulation of the war. The first consists of
speeches made by President George Bush in the build-up to the first Gulf War, and
the second are comments made by American Vietnam veterans about Hollywood
and other representations of the war. But, to be absolutely clear, these factors, how-
ever compelling they may be in themselves, do not provide conclusive proof that
Hollywood’s account of the war has become hegemonic where it matters – in the lived
practices of everyday life.
In the weeks leading up to the first Gulf War, Newsweek(10 December 1990)
featured a cover showing a photograph of a serious-looking George Bush. Above the
photograph was the banner headline, ‘This will not be another Vietnam’. The headline
was taken from a speech made by Bush in which he said, ‘In our country, I know that
there are fears of another Vietnam. Let me assure you...this will not be another
Vietnam’. In another speech, Bush again assured his American audience that, ‘This will
not be another Vietnam’. But this time he explained why: ‘Our troops will have the best
possible support in the entire world. They will not be asked to fight with one hand tied
behind their backs’ (quoted in the Daily Telegraph, January 1991).
In these speeches, Bush was seeking to put to rest a spectre that had come to haunt
America’s political and military self-image, what former President Richard Nixon had


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called the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ (1986). The debate over American foreign policy had,
according to Nixon, been ‘grotesquely distorted’ by reluctance ‘to use power to defend
national interests’ (13). Fear of another Vietnam, had made America ‘ashamed of...
[its] power, guilty about being strong’ (19).
In the two Bush speeches from which I have quoted, and in many other similar
speeches, Bush was articulating what many powerful American voices throughout the
1980s had sought to make the dominant meaning of the war: ‘the Vietnam War as a
noble cause betrayed – an American tragedy’. For example, in the 1980 presidential cam-
paign Ronald Reagan declared, in an attempt to put an end to the Vietnam Syndrome,
‘It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause’ (quoted in John Carlos
Rowe and Rick Berg, 1991: 10). Moreover, Reagan insisted, ‘Let us tell those who
fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in
a war our government is afraid to let us win’ (quoted in Stephen Vlastos, 1991: 69). In
1982 (almost a decade after the last US combat troops left Vietnam), the Vietnam
Veterans’ memorial was unveiled in Washington. Reagan observed that Americans were
‘beginning to appreciate that [the Vietnam War] was a just cause’ (quoted in Barbie
Zelizer, 1995: 220). In 1984 (eleven years after the last US combat troops left Vietnam)
the Unknown Vietnam Soldier was buried; at the ceremony President Reagan claimed,
‘An American hero has returned home....He accepted his mission and did his duty.
And his honest patriotism overwhelms us’ (quoted in Rowe and Berg, 1991: 10). In
1985 (twelve years after the last US combat troops left Vietnam), New York staged
the first of the ‘Welcome Home’ parades for Vietnam veterans. In this powerful mix
of political rhetoric and national remembering, there is a clear attempt to put in place
a new ‘consensus’ about the meaning of America’s war in Vietnam. It begins in 1980
in Reagan’s successful presidential campaign and ends in 1991 with the triumphalism
of Bush after victory in the first Gulf War. Therefore, when, in the build-up to the
Gulf War, Bush had asked Americans to remember the Vietnam War, the memories
recalled by many Americans may have been of a war they had lived cinematically; a
war of bravery and betrayal. Hollywood’s Vietnam had provided the materials to
rehearse, elaborate, interpret and retell an increasingly dominant memory of America’s
war in Vietnam.

This was a memory that had little relationship to the ‘facts’ of the war. Put simply,
the United States deployed in Vietnam the most intensive firepower the world had ever
witnessed. Hollywood narratives do not feature the deliberate defoliation of large areas
of Vietnam, the napalm strikes, the search-and-destroy missions, the use of Free Fire
Zones, the mass bombing. For example, during the ‘Christmas bombing’ campaign of
1972, the United States ‘dropped more tonnage of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong
than Germany dropped on Great Britain from 1940 to 1945’ (Franklin, 1993: 79). In
total, the United States dropped three times the number of bombs on Vietnam as had
been dropped anywhere during the whole of the Second World War (Pilger, 1990). In
a memorandum to President Johnson in 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
wrote: ‘[The] picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring
1,000 noncombatants a week [his estimate of the human cost of the US bombing



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Chapter 8‘Race’, racism and representation

campaign], while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue
whose merits are hotly disputed, is not pretty’ (quoted in Martin, 1993: 19–20). This
makes very unconvincing Bush’s claim that the United States fought the war with one
hand tied behind its back.
A second example of the consumption of Hollywood’s Vietnam is provided by the
comments of American Vietnam veterans. As Marita Sturken observes, ‘Some Vietnam
veterans say they have forgotten where some of their memories came from – their own
experiences, documentary photographs, or Hollywood movies?’ (1997: 20). For example,
Vietnam veteran William Adams makes this telling point:

When Platoonwas first released, a number of people asked me, ‘Was the war really
like that?’ I never found an answer, in part because, no matter how graphic and
realistic, a movie is after all a movie, and war is only like itself. But I also failed to find
an answer because what ‘really’ happened is now so thoroughly mixed up in my
mind with what has been said about what happened that the pure experience is no
longer there. This is odd, even painful, in some ways. But it is also testimony to the
way our memories work. The Vietnam War is no longer a definite event so much
as it is a collective and mobile script in which we continue to scrawl, erase, rewrite
our conflicting and changing view of ourselves (quoted in Sturken, 1997: 86).

Similarly, academic and Vietnam veteran Michael Clark writes of how the ticker-tape
welcome home parade for Vietnam veterans staged in New York in 1985, together with
the media coverage of the parade and the Hollywood films which seemed to provide
the context for the parade, had worked together to produce a particular memory of the
war – a memory with potentially deadly effects:

they had constituted our memory of the war all along...[They] healed over the
wounds that had refused to close for ten years with a balm of nostalgia, and trans-
formed guilt and doubt into duty and pride. And with a triumphant flourish [they]
offered us the spectacle of [their] most successful creation, the veterans who will
fight the next war (Clark, 1991: 180).

Moreover, as Clark is at pains to stress, ‘the memory of Vietnam has ceased to be a
point of resistance to imperialist ambitions and is now invoked as a vivid warning to
do it right next time’ (206). These concerns were fully justified by Bush’s triumphalism
as the end of the first Gulf War, when he boasted, as if the war had been fought for no
other reason than to overcome a traumatic memory, ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam
Syndrome once and for all’ (quoted in Franklin, 1993: 177). Echoing these comments,
the New York Times(2 December 1993) featured an article with the title, ‘Is the Vietnam
Syndrome Dead? Happily, It’s Buried in the Gulf’. Vietnam, the sign of American loss
and division had been buried in the sands of the Persian Gulf. Kicking the Vietnam
Syndrome (with the help of Hollywood’s Vietnam) had supposedly liberated a nation
from old ghosts and doubts; had made America once again strong, whole and ready for
the next war.


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